Rihanna is reportedly including Chris Brown on an upcoming remix of her single “Birthday Cake”–which should come as little surprise who has paid attention to Rihanna’s recorded output since Mr. Brown brutally assaulted her in 2009. Her album Rated R, released later that year, was dark and brooding, professing a simultaneous revulsion by and obsession with danger (cf. “Russian Roulette”) and a sexual fetish for violence (“Rude Boy”).
Her next album, Loud, released in 2010, featured “S&M,” a song explicitly about being beaten with chains and whips, which Rihanna retroactively redefined by making a video about her relationship with the media. That same year, she scored one of her biggest hits ever by performing on Eminem’s song “Love the Way You Lie,” about an abusive relationship; Loud also included a sequel to the rap hit, wherein she sang “You’ll always be my hero / Even though you’ve lost your mind.”
In a 2011 Rolling Stone story entitled “Queen of Pain,” Rihanna said, “I do think I’m a bit of a masochist. It’s not something I’m proud of, and it’s not something I noticed until recently. I think it’s common for people who witness abuse in their household. They can never smell how beautiful a rose is unless they get pricked by a thorn.”
Rihanna’s “We Found Love” video, released in late 2011, depicted an abusive relationship–which did not seem to cohere with the song’s lyrics about ecstatic happiness. A male model who looked a great deal like Chris Brown portrayed the abuser.
It is widely noted that Rihanna is a #1-record machine, or at least a machine: she has released six studio albums since her 2005 debut. She was bred for stardom not by dint of her voice (which has improved but remains unimpressive) but for her pliability. She was able to sing songs written for her. Her third album, Good Girl Gone Bad, was not merely a breakthrough but a statement of purpose. Madonna reinvented herself with every album cycle; Rihanna pulls four new publicity stunts with every single. Many of these stunts are goofy and benign: a duet with a barely-upright Britney Spears, a Twitter feed wherein she curses out her critics.
To not merely foreground past trauma but to retroactively make it into the stuff of the garden-variety publicity stunting Rihanna thrives off of lacks taste and lacks awareness of why people like Rihanna. Her career exists in its present, massively successful form because her brash persona encourages the viewer to see her not as a victim but instead a successful, powerful woman. She is capable, certainly, of making her own decisions, but her slow-motion, many-steps-long move towards a duet with her abuser is likely to alienate the fans who tried to convince themselves that she was capable of stepping outside an industry that sees women as commodities. Her producers’ statement that “Birthday Cake” would “shock the world” indicates that Rihanna, for all the personal calculus that must be involved in her relationship with Mr. Brown, is trolling her fans; it is shocking, but lacking in the frisson of gossipy delight that a publicity stunt delivers.